|It is widely believed that General Stanley McChrystal wants to add between 30,000 and 40,000 US troops in Afghanistan.|
Obama huddles with top brass on US strategy in Afghanistan
Meeting is first of five to assess goals in region
WASHINGTON - The president, vice president and an array of Cabinet secretaries, intelligence chiefs, generals, diplomats, and advisers gathered in a windowless basement room of the White House for three hours yesterday to chart a new course in Afghanistan.
The one proposition everyone could agree on: None of the choices is easy.
Just six months after President Obama adopted what he called a “stronger, smarter, and comprehensive strategy’’ for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is back at the same table starting from scratch. The choices available to him are both sharply defined and not particularly palatable.
He could stick with his March strategy, but the commander in the field wants as many as 40,000 more troops to make it work. He could go radically in the other direction and embrace his vice president’s idea of using fewer troops and focusing on hunting down leaders of Al Qaeda, but risk the collapse of the Afghan government. Or he could search for some middle-ground option that avoids the risks of the other two, but potentially find himself in a quagmire.
“He’s doing what he has to do: Before you make a decision, you better scrub all your alternative options,’’ said Brett H. McGurk, who worked on Afghanistan and Iraq at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and briefly under Obama. “I just suspect they’ll find, like we found with Iraq, that it’s two imperfect choices.’’
At the heart of the decision is defining US strategic interest in the region. Obama has called Afghanistan a “war of necessity’’ to stop it from becoming a haven again for Al Qaeda to attack America. The question is, how much danger is there and how many soldiers and dollars should be devoted to minimizing it?
Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised General Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, said the chances of a new Qaeda stronghold that could threaten US territory was relatively low, but that even a small risk was a concern.
“It’s like buying life insurance for a 50-year-old,’’ Biddle said. “The odds of a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America are substantially less than 1 percent. And yet most Americans buy life insurance.’’
The meeting in the Situation Room was one of five planned by the White House as the president rethinks his approach in response to a dire report by McChrystal. The session was intended to review the deteriorating political and security situation, while future meetings will examine options in detail.
McChrystal’s preferred option builds on the strategy outlined by Obama in March with a substantial infusion of new troops. The counterinsurgency strategy emphasized protecting civilians over just engaging insurgents, restricting air strikes to reduce civilian casualties, and sharply expanding Afghan security forces through accelerated training.
Most counterinsurgency specialists say a larger ground force is needed to clear Taliban-held territory and hold it while instructors train enough competent Afghan soldiers and police officers, and Afghan leaders build an effective government.
Critics contend that foreign forces have never pacified Afghanistan and that additional troops will only increase the perception of them being occupiers. The result would be a long, drawn-out war with many more US casualties. They say that though the Taliban are ruthless, they do not pose a danger to the United States, while Al Qaeda, which is a threat, is located primarily in Pakistan.
Moreover, widespread allegations of fraud in Afghanistan’s presidential election have left the country’s leadership uncertain.
At the other end of the spectrum is Biden’s approach. Rather than try to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, US forces would concentrate on taking out Qaeda leadership, primarily in Pakistan, using Special Operations forces, Predator missile strikes, and other tactics.
This counterterrorism strategy, as opposed to a counterinsurgency strategy, is predicated on the theory that the real threat to national security lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
“Pakistan is the critical focus, the greatest security risk for the United States,’’ said Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “And all of this exercise, after all, is about our security.’’